Sunday, May 28, 2017

300. New York Occupations: Strange, Unique, and Weird

          The release date for Bill Hope: His Story was May 17, so those who have already ordered it from Amazon should be receiving it shortly, and anyone who wishes to order it can do so and have it promptly shipped.


         For six LibraryThing prepublication reviews of Bill Hope: 
His Story by viennamax, stephvin, Cricket2014, Shoosty, terry19802, and graham072442, go here and scroll down.


         New York City, with its great diversity, has every kind of occupation, some unusual, some unique, and a few just flat-out weird.  This post and the next will have a look at some of them.

         Structural engineer.  Suppose you’re buying an old house or a brownstone.  How do you know if it’s architecturally sound?  Before closing the deal you hire a structural engineer to look it over.  A walk-through inspection costs $400 to $800, but if it saves you from acquiring a nightmare, it’s worth it.

File:19950629삼풍백화점 붕괴 사고100.jpg
Maybe they needed a structural engineer.서울특별시 소방재난본부
         Environmental consultant.  Environmental regulations can be a baffling maze of requirements, and New York is fiercely regulated.  In old buildings, asbestos may have been used in construction, and lead in paint; both are toxic.  Waste must be disposed of properly; your building may be in a flood zone; your planned renovation may have undesirable consequences; and so on.  If, as a property owner or business, you aren’t sure if you’re complying and you fear a fine, you hire an environmental consultant to make sure you’re in compliance.    

         Sidewalk vendor.  They’re all over the place, selling food, accessories, souvenirs, art, and books.  But Kirk Davidson, who sells books on the west side of Broadway near 73rd Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is a special kind of vendor, for he has been there for years, a neighborhood fixture, and leaves his stock out overnight under plastic.  He began with a flimsy folding table and a few items in 1986, but now offers a host of books stacked high on ten or more tables.  Some neighbors approve, others say his tables are an eyesore and block a congested sidewalk.  Over the years he has been served with summonses and suffered seizures of his stock, but has usually won dismissals by pointing out errors in the summonses and citing laws on free speech.  But that’s not the end of it, for he then sues the city for unlawful enforcement and seizure, and claims to have netted settlements totaling $80,000.  Recently the city assigned two police officers on rotating shifts to make sure his tables were not left unattended, which violates the law – an assignment, Mr. Davidson emphasizes, that costs taxpayers unconscionable sums.  No question, he’s a real New Yorker, full of chutzpah and hustle, but now he’s decided to limit himself to four tables, “just enough to pay my bills and live on.” 

File:Waldorf-Astoria Park Avenue Entrance.jpg

         Hotel archivist.  A hotel with its very own archivist?  Weird.  But not if the hotel in question is the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue between East 49th and 50th Streets in Manhattan, a luxury hotel famous for its two-tiered ballroom, its celebrity residents, and a vast lobby that I used to visit briefly, to hear harp music drifting gently down from a harpist on a balcony above.  The archivist, Granada-born Deirdre Dinnigan, sits in a cramped room in a windowless corner of the hotel’s second-floor administrative offices, cataloguing and researching more than 4,000 objects that include filigreed brass room numbers, menus, letters, staff uniforms and linens, fine china, ashtrays, silverware, and yellowing ads from the 1950s – a job she loves.  But a Chinese insurance company bought the hotel in 2014 and plans to convert it into luxury condominiums with a much smaller hotel component.  While the hotel will include the archive, Ms. Dinnigan is worried about keeping her job.  Meanwhile she’s working diligently to catalogue materials and also to record the oral histories of longtime employees.  But in March the hotel shut down for its two-year renovation, forcing guests to leave, some of them in tears.

         Wigmaker.  He has 600 pounds of hair – gray, brown, and blond – in his Staten Island garage, where the hairs sit in bundles and, uncoiled, are three feet long and almost reach the ground.  He is Nicholas Piazza, the grandson of Sicilian immigrants, who for decades made custom wigs and hairpieces for such luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor, and singer Lena Horne.  He is one of the few remaining Old World wigmakers, trained mostly by Jewish and Italian immigrants in the centuries-old trade of making wigs by hand, an intricate process producing hairlines that blend into the skin.  But wig-making today is not a dying industry, since celebrities have made it an “in” thing, very cool, and wigs are also in demand for Metropolitan operas and Broadway musicals.  Yet the master wigmakers of old are fading away, replaced by imports from China, where the painstaking work is done by thousands of factory workers.  And since hairlines are really a challenge, lots of today’s wigs feature bangs.  Genuine human hair has become hard to obtain, but at age 68, working part-time in a Midtown salon, Mr. Piazza has enough to last him out.  And the cost of his wigs?  $3,850 and up.

File:1861 U.S. Coast Survey Map of New York City Bay and Harbor - Geographicus - NewYorkBayHarbor4-uscs-1861.jpg
U.S. Coast Survey, Coast Chart No. 21, New York Bay and Harbor, 1861.  Staten Island
 and Brooklyn almost kiss at the Narrows.  To continue in an erotic mode, the erection at 

the bottom of the map is Sandy Hook.

         Channel master.  In this age of air travel it’s easy to forget that ocean liners and cargo ships come and go in the port of New York.  But the Outer Harbor – the waters beyond the Narrows but this side of Sandy Hook – is a maze of shallow channels between shifting sandbars, and to negotiate those channels requires the knowledge and skill of members of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association.  (A brief geographical note: The Narrows is where the entrance to the harbor is the narrowest, between Brooklyn and Staten Island.  Sandy Hook is a long, thin finger of land that sticks out from New Jersey to enclose the Outer Harbor, beyond which lies the open sea.)  It is the job of these 75 pilots (4 of them women) to go out in small boats to board incoming and outgoing vessels and guide them through these channels.  Their job is more essential than ever today, since the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska in 1989 and spilled millions of gallons of heavy black crude; such an accident in the waters around New York would be disastrous for the U.S. economy.  But today the pilots are maritime college graduates, and after a five-year apprenticeship they take a four-day state exam that  requires them to know every rock, reef, shoal, pipeline, and cable in the harbor.  Calm waters make their job easier; bad weather with high winds is another matter.

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A pilot boat in the Inner Harbor, 2007.

         Crematory manager.  The walls are lined with niches containing the ashes of deceased New Yorkers, some of the remains in old cinerary urns displayed in glass-encased time capsules with displays of photographs and keepsakes.  The interior of the building has marble floors and walls, stained-glass windows, Oriental rugs, and antique furniture.  But towering above the neo-Classical building is a smokestack to convey heavenward – or at least skyward – the fumes from incineration, for this is the Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village, Queens, presided over by J.P. Di Troia, president, and his wife, the vice president.  Mr. Di Troia insists that cremation is an efficient and graceful alternative to burial, and his four high-temperature retorts have performed 270,000 cremations since Fresh Pond opened in the mid-1880s.  His uncle ran the place when Mr. Di Troia was a child, and he began working there at age 17 and subsequently worked his way up to vice president, and then to president when his uncle died.  He considers himself the keeper of 40,000 souls (Ring Lardner among them), and when he leaves each night, he says good-bye to them.  Adorned with mementos of the departed, the niches, he insists, are a celebration of lives.

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A modern crematory oven. 

         You think crematory manager is a rather strange occupation, even weird?  Wait till you see what’s in next week’s post.

         Source note:  For much of the information in this post, I am indebted to articles in various editions of the New York Times:

Corey Kilgannon, “A Sidewalk Vendor Amasses Books, Lawsuits and Nearly 200 Summonses” (August 11, 2016).

Julie Satow, “Meet the Keeper of the Waldorf Astoria’s Salad Days” (July 24, 2016).

Annie Correal, “Last of the Master Wigmakers” (April 9, 2017).

Emily S. Rueb, “Channel Masters in a Crowded Harbor” (November 20, 2016).

Corey Kilgannon, “Keeper of 40,000 Souls” (September 11, 2016).

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          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon:  The Sultan of Smut, an $800 million collection (and it isn’t smut), Bang Bang and Megan Massacre, deaths from mania in the 1840s, and cracking open a chest (the human kind) with clippers: more where-but-in-New-York occupations.

©   2017   Clifford Browder